SUNSET BEACH — The Gores of Sunset Beach know better than just about anyone how temporary the shapes of North Carolina’s barrier islands can be.
They have made a fortune, after all, by carving a whole island exactly how they wanted. After buying Sunset Beach in 1955, Mannon Gore, and later his son Ed, scraped dunes flat, cut canals to create valuable additional waterfront and piled up sand to build up an entire peninsula of lots on the back side of the island. They even built a floating bridge and moved an entire inlet, cutting off part of an adjacent island and attaching it to theirs.
Now a third generation of Gores is developing and selling. But as hundreds of homes sprouted on the lots they created, so have environmental laws and resistance to their style of development among the residents. Both things have made it increasingly hard for the Gores to get their way.
They’re wrestling with regulations and residents again in what may be their final attempt at sculpting the island: a plan to add about two dozen home sites – the state’s closest beach homes to South Carolina – atop what had been an inlet at the southwest end.
“A lot of the development has taken place down here as an ‘oops!’ ” said Sue Weddle, a longtime island resident and environmental activist. “The developers’ mantra has been to ask forgiveness, not permission. But the property owners are not willing to let that happen this time because there’s too much at stake.”
The project would harm the view from the current oceanfront homes, which are set back a few hundred yards from the beach. It would pose a threat to the marsh behind it and to an adjacent state preserve called Bird Island, Weddle said.
Ed Gore said opposition to the new project is just more of the same from the folks who have tried to stop island development for decades.
“Those who came wanted to close the gate, and they formed an organization and tried to buy (Mannon) out and close the gate, but they couldn’t raise 50 dollars to do it,” he said. “And there is that close-the-gate mentality still.”
Shaped by developers
If you vacation on one of North Carolina’s delicate, shifting barrier islands, that island and the type of holiday you experience were likely shaped by men like the Gores, the Williamsons of Ocean Isle Beach or the Holdens of Holden Beach.
They had the entrepreneurial drive and the vision to mold the islands their way, for better or worse, and in many cases did so just ahead of environmental regulation that would have made it impossible. They often also were politically connected, like Odell Williamson, a longtime legislator.
The regulations evolved as understanding grew of the fragile, shifting nature of the islands, the unpredictable inlets that divided them and the environmental importance of the endless tracts of marshes between them and the mainland, which are critical habitat for many forms of marine life.
But it’s also true that the communities these developers built are massive economic engines for the coastal counties.
There literally would be no Sunset Beach without the family patriarch, Mannon Gore, because he gave the island its name. When he bought the island in 1955 for $60,000, it was the less marketable “Bald Beach.”
He and Ed, who came home in 1958 from a stint in the military, then proceeded to cut, shape and eventually sell bits of the island.
“Other than what God did by putting it there, they did,” said Mason Anderson, who did legal work for the Gores and later himself became a developer.
A dredge and a dream
Mannon Gore had no formal education, Ed Gore said in a recent interview, but he had some formidable gifts. One was the vision to see how, even if it took decades, an entire town could be crafted from a barren, 2-mile stretch of sand and a tract of thick forest on the mainland.
Another of his gifts was a set of practical skills. As a young man, he had worked on dredges in the rivers and harbors of the Midwest and knew his way around the huge floating pumps that sucked sand and muck from underwater and spit it out somewhere else, creating a channel in one place and building up dry land in another.
Mannon Gore built a small dredge himself and used it to pile up sand from the marsh into causeways, one attached to the island and the other from the mainland. Then he connected them with a simple floating bridge made from World War II surplus barges that could be swung open to allow boats to pass along that busy liquid highway along the East Coast called the Intracoastal Waterway.
The bridge’s clever design was later copied by the state in 1961 for a replacement that served nearly half a century until a high-rise replacement was finished in 2010. The pontoon bridge became a symbol of the island; locals, nostalgic for the extra dash of privacy it had given them and the thump of their tires on the boards of its deck, preserved the bridge for display.
In 1958, Mannon Gore started selling lots at cut rates, even for those times – $1,000 for waterfront and $250 to $400 for interior sites – to get enough homes built to persuade the state to take over the roads and bridge, Ed Gore said.
And the two of them kept shaping the island, using a cranelike dragline to dig a 90-foot-wide canal on the mainland side of the island, parallel to the ocean shore, and then cut four smaller canals coming off it like teeth on a comb. The canals are now lined with lots or houses, and plans for the undeveloped peninsula they had built by piling sand from the main canal into the marsh show dozens of lots there.
All this was standard practice. Along North Carolina’s barrier islands, developers made dozens of similar causeways and cut more than 100 such canals.
The Gores then turned their efforts – and a new, larger dredge – to an even more ambitious effort to mold the island and end a massive threat: Tubbs Inlet.
Inlets often migrate for various, sometimes mysterious, reasons, and Tubbs – which divides Ocean Isle Beach from Sunset Beach – had been slipping farther west onto Sunset for decades at the alarming rate of more than 60 feet a year, chewing away potential home sites as it went.
Armed with a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and a simple, hand-drawn plan, the Gores vacuumed away thousands of cubic yards of sand, filling the old inlet site and cutting a new one more than half a mile east.
After that, something in the dynamics of the shoreline changed. Tubbs began migrating in the other direction, onto Ocean Isle, albeit more slowly.
Likely the reversal was because of dredging that built up the back side of the island – the Gores’ work – and also perhaps because of canals that Odell Williamson had cut into the back side of Ocean Isle, said Spencer Rogers, a construction and erosion specialist for N.C. Sea Grant, a coastal research and education program.
The dredging enlarged a waterway. That and the canals allowed more flow in and out, said Rogers, who is also a member of a science panel that advises the state’s Coastal Resources Commission.
The building of the barrier islands by dredging sand onto marsh had once been much more common than people realize these days, he said. Among the new chunks of island created was a massive piece of Wrightsville Beach.
Just as the Gores were finishing their major tailoring of the island, a different kind of tide had turned, and a new era of environmental regulation was beginning.
Ahead of the regulators
The Gores were done with most of their major dredging to reshape the island by the late 1960s, a good thing for them because much of it would have been illegal by 1969, thanks to a new state “dredge and fill” law.
Almost from the beginning, the new wave of environmental regulations chafed.
In 1971, a federal prosecutor filed suit against Mannon Gore for destroying marshland by building an improper dike with a dredge. Gore told the Wilmington Star-News at the time that the prosecutor “had better back up and start over.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with those people. … They’re getting a lot of people up and down this coast hot with their foolishness,” he said.
And in 1974, the General Assembly enacted the Coastal Area Management Act, a more comprehensive set of laws to protect the environment along the coast, including the beaches, dunes and estuary systems.
Moving an inlet would be much more difficult these days than simply applying for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and filling the fuel tank on the dredge. It’s not impossible, but CAMA would make it extremely difficult.
Ed Gore still grumbles about all the regulations and permits it takes to do even modest development on the coast. His dad, who retired in 1972, needed just two simple permits to start developing the island: one for the floating bridge and the other to put the island’s fishing pier in the ocean.
“They were lucky they did it right before the rules came in,” said W.J. McLamb, a paving contractor who worked for the Gores and who also became a developer. “They did it just ahead of the rule-making, and people should understand that those beaches did a tremendous amount of good here, stimulating the economy.”
To understand the importance of the developments, McLamb said, compare Brunswick’s thriving economy with those of counties just inland, which have essentially been stagnant since Mannon Gore bought the island.
‘Foolish place to build’
In Brunswick County, the Gores get the kind of respect that success and wealth bring, and they have shared their good fortune, donating to causes such as Brunswick Community College, where the aquatics and fitness center is named after Ed Gore’s wife, Dinah.
Ed Gore also has donated millions to his alma mater, Campbell University, and to N.C. State University.
Some of the homeowners who were lured to the area by their developments aren’t always inclined to treat the developers like civic heroes. Many at Sunset Beach have repeatedly accused the Gores of improper behavior or of simply not acting in the best interest of the community.
“Following regulations has never been a strong suit of Sunset Beach or any of the Gores,” said Weddle, the local activist. “And at the end of the day, it comes down to whether this is going to be a more desirable place to live or a less desirable one.”
The opposition began early in the community’s history. Just a few years after Mannon Gore started selling lots, several residents of the island formed a short-lived group to try to stop his efforts.
Later, lawsuits by homeowners and the town made it ever harder for the Gores to get their way. A watchdog group called Brunswick Environmental Action Team began scrutinizing the legality of development projects, and a larger group fought and delayed for two decades the Gore-backed state plan to build a high-rise bridge, which was built in 2010, onto the island.
The latest fight is over Ed Gore’s plan to carve 23 oceanfront lots out of a strip of sand that has built up at the mouth of a former inlet, Mad Inlet, at the opposite end of the island from Tubbs.
Local residents, absentee homeowners and the town itself are fighting the idea. The inlet closed only a couple of decades ago, and given the volatile nature of barrier islands, it will surely open again, they say.
Marine geologist Stan Riggs, who is also on the CRC science panel, said there was little question the inlet will reopen one day, albeit temporarily. Major hurricanes have often targeted the state’s southern coast; such “ephemeral” inlets, even if they aren’t open for years, provide a vital safety valve for water that builds up behind the islands in storms.
“It’s a foolish place to build,” Riggs said.
CAMA regulations would limit changes to the dunes, and Todd Miller, head of the N.C. Coastal Federation, said he believes they also should bar the 500-foot access bridge that Gore has proposed. It would have to extend over public waters and marsh.
Because of the environmentally sensitive nature of the location, the project would require a major CAMA permit for the bridge and subdivision, said Michele Walker, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The small waterway that bridge would cross isn’t navigable, so that and the fact that it would be built over publicly owned marsh aren’t issues, she said.
Weddle and Jan Harris, another member of the environmental watchdog group, have spent years researching the complex environmental regulations involved and said regulations aren’t enough. They said that the Gores frequently cut corners and can often get away with it because they’re politically connected. If the residents don’t keep an eye on them, regulators won’t, they said.
Gore dismisses Weddle and Harris as environmental zealots. He said their real goal, like the others who have opposed him, is to keep others off the island.
A shifting shape
Gore’s latest plan has already required a special ruling from the state Coastal Resources Commission that there is no longer a permanent inlet there.
It also took kind of a miracle: a buildup of sand that since the early 1970s has added hundreds of feet to the beach side of the island, not only helping close Mad Inlet, but also giving the existing beachfront homes narrow front yards that are longer than two football fields in some places. This has occurred while much of the rest of North Carolina’s coast has fought eroding beaches.
It’s also unlikely that it will go on forever, said Rogers, the coastal erosion expert. Sunset Beach had extraordinary rates of erosion for years, then the accretion. With that kind of volatility, there’s no reason to think it will always be building up.
“Sunset Beach has had far wider fluctuations than just about any beach in the state since the 1930s,” he said.
The land over Mad Inlet technically doesn’t belong to Gore now. He sold it to a company that includes a longtime associate, Sammy Varnam, who has worked with Ed Gore’s son, Greg, on other projects, including working toward developing the peninsula.
The plan, Ed Gore said, is to build a group of rental houses and run it as a resort. That’s the only way to make it work, he said. It would be hard to sell homes there because environmental regulations prevent federally subsidized insurance in such an exposed location, and individual buyers would balk at paying the full cost, he said.
Weddle and other opponents have scrutinized every detail, including confirming with county officials that the local water and sewer systems were federally subsidized. That, Weddle said, should bar the project from hooking on because of a law that prohibits using federally funded resources in flood-prone areas.
Gore said that if there’s no one’s money at risk but the developer’s, it shouldn’t be anyone’s business whether homes are built there.
One of Mannon Gore’s earliest customers was Frank Nesmith, who joined his father in buying a lot in 1958 on a canal Gore dug on the mainland part of Sunset Beach.
Nesmith, 87, said in a recent interview that he deeply respected Mannon Gore but declined to say what he thought of Ed Gore. The two once got into a fistfight over land that Nesmith said was public and Gore said was his, and each lodged charges against the other.
But even as an environmentalist whose views about conservation evolved over the decades along with society’s, Nesmith said he doesn’t blame the Gores for shaping the island in the early days.
People’s views have changed, just like the laws, he said.
“Back then, we didn’t see anything wrong with it,” Nesmith said. “It was what you called progress.”